Ewen MacAskill

Columbia (United States): Voters in the American west and south will get their first chance on Saturday to have a say in the tightest and most chaotic race for the White House in decades.

According to the latest polls, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are in a virtual dead heat in Nevada, which holds its caucuses on Saturday for Democrats and Republicans. Pollster, which tracks all the polls, shows Mr. Obama eating into Ms. Clinton’s lead. A Reuters/Zogby poll in Nevada, carried out between Tuesday and Thursday and published on Friday, puts Ms. Clinton on 42 per cent, Mr. Obama on 37 per cent and Edwards 12 per cent.

South Carolina, where the Republicans have been engaged in an acrimonious contest that has invoked God and the Confederate flag, holds its primary on Saturday for Republican voters. The Democratic primary in the State is next Saturday. Polls show John McCain and Mike Huckabee rising, leaving Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson trailing. A Reuters/Zogby poll in South Carolina puts Mr. McCain on 29 per cent, Mr. Huckabee on 22 per cent, Mr. Romney on 15 per cent and Mr. Thompson on 13 per cent.

Testing ground

South Carolina has long been the testing ground for any Republican hopeful. The winner of the last six primaries in the State has gone on to become the Republican nominee.

But Mr. Romney, whose Mormonism has gone down badly among Christian Evangelicals in the State, virtually conceded defeat on Thursday by pulling out of South Carolina and heading for Nevada. Although the western State does not carry the same resonance for Republicans as South Carolina, Mr. Romney has a substantial poll lead there.

Mr. Thompson could be forced to pull out if he loses in South Carolina, though he insisted on Friday he would not.

The Confederate flag was revived as a campaign issue by Mr. Huckabee, who said: “You don’t like people from outside the State coming in and telling you what to do with your flag.”

The flag flew over the State Capitol building until 2000 when, after a heated debate, it was removed to another part of the grounds, though with a stipulation to placate die-hard supporters that it should not be flown lower than nine metres. Mr. Huckabee’s comments were aimed at Mr. McCain, who called in 2000 for the removal of the flag from the State Capitol. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008